The UNC Board of Governors may have violated the state’s Open Meeting Law when it moved to a private room to avoid student protesters on Friday.
NC Student Power Union were demonstrating against the Board of Governors’ decision to close three UNC System centers: UNC Chapel Hill’s Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity, N.C. Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity.
Shortly after the demonstration began, Chairman of the Board of Governors John Fennebresque sent the meeting into a short recess allowing the members of the board enough time to move to another room in the UNC-Charlotte student union.
All students were barred from entering the new meeting room, a move which Amanda Martin, general counsel to the N.C. Press Association, said was likely not in accordance with North Carolina’s Open Meeting Law, despite the fact that the board streamed the rest of the meeting on projection screens in the original room.
“I don’t think a public body can pick and choose who to let in, in a discriminating fashion,” Martin said. “The law is clear that they can remove dissidents, but—in my opinion—this was a violation of the Open Meeting Law.”
This is the last semester for three UNC System centers and institutes after the UNC Board of Governors voted—without objection—to follow a working group’s recommendation and close them after a months-long controversial review process.
According to Jim Holmes Jr. who chaired the overwhelmingly conservative working group that recommended cutting the three centers, politics had nothing to do with his group’s recommendation.
“There has never been, in our committee, the desire to manage centers at the board level,” said board member Jim Holmes Jr., shortly before the board voted to discontinue them.
During the meeting, however, NCSPU made it clear that the group isn’t buying that. As Holmes presented his group’s findings to the board, several members of the NCSPU stood up in the crowd, one after the next, to read from a prepared speech in protest.
Chairman of the Board of Governors John Fennebresque ordered two police officers, who had already been watching the students in the audience, to remove the protestors from the conference room in UNC Charlotte’s student union where the meeting was being held. But in a manner reminiscent of Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus, each time a student was removed by the police, a new student took his or her place and continued reading.
“Even though it’s a public meeting, the board isn’t interested in hearing the voices of the students they’re affecting,” said Elisa Benitez, a member of the NCSPU and a senior at UNC Charlotte. “I’m not surprised they shut down the meeting. It’s very typical. They always try to shut down student voices.’
However, the board wasn’t able to dodge all opposition by a room change.
According to Holmes, UNC Chapel Hill’s Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC System President Tom Ross, both of whom were present, opposed his group’s recommendation.
Board of Governors emeritus member Hannah Gage, who is unable to cast a vote, also expressed some hesitancy to get behind Holmes’ recommendation.
“The beauty of our system has always been that the board resisted the temptation to intervene and I think that’s important,” Gage said shortly before the board voted. “We are crossing a new line when we make this decision, and this is a line that I hope we don’t cross again.”